Before the pandemic, I traveled to many countries, particularly in Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East, visiting our colleagues, customers and business partners. Working with culturally diverse people has become a source of inspiration, learning and growth. However, doing business globally comes with unique challenges, such as time zone shifts, language barriers and different cultural norms.
How do you overcome these challenges and demonstrate leadership excellence globally? Here are some tips for leading global teams and engaging with global customers.
Leadership First, Location Second
I want to make this point loud and clear: Leadership comes first, location second. Whether leading a global workforce or domestic teams, great leaders:
• Respect people and value cultural diversity.
• Listen to and empower their teams.
• Serve as role models for their mission, values and beliefs.
• Set inspirational vision and strategy.
• Communicate clearly and often.
• Take responsibility and hold themselves accountable.
These principles are true everywhere. If you cannot lead a domestic business effectively, you cannot lead an international business effectively. Building trust is essential for leadership effectiveness. As a leader, you need to show warmth and respect to your international teams. Hone your listening skills. Solicit feedback genuinely. Take prompt actions based on feedback.
Just like how you lead domestic teams, vision and strategy are key to engaging with your international teams, partners and customers. I have made many trips to meet with our international teams in their regions to talk about our business strategies and how we support them with product innovations. On the same trips, I meet with our international customers to validate our strategies and business plans.
Learn And Respect International Culture
As a global leader, you must be extraordinarily culturally aware and respect local customs. Knowing and respecting local culture makes you a credible leader.
I once conducted a workshop in Japan with 30 customers. I purposefully slowed my pace, spoke using plain English and paused often. After multiple business visits, I had learned that audiences there can be shy about asking questions. By observing facial expressions and body language, I could tell who had questions to ask. I used these tactics to encourage questions and facilitated a very successful dialogue among the customers.
Before a business trip to a new country, I take time to study local culture. Here are some of the tips I have picked up over the years.
• In many Asian countries, giving and receiving business cards is a formal act demonstrating respect. Hold the business card with two hands and use eye contact. Your body should lean forward slightly.
• Don’t insist on shaking hands. Many Indians, for instance, especially women, prefer the namaste gesture.
• Business culture is very hierarchical in China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Be aware of seating arrangements and speaking order on all occasions including meetings, dinners and taking photos.
• Doing business in the Middle East often revolves around personal relationships and trust. Business leaders should be aware of religious holidays, prayer habits, gender roles and proper greetings, as well as dining etiquette.
Understand Geopolitics And Its Business Implications
The world is entering an era of constant changes to the global order. A broad understanding of geopolitics is becoming more critical for global leaders, from political trends to economic development, from foreign policy to government operations. These are the issues to which I pay detailed attention when I go to a new country.
• Political stability and how the country is governed.
• Economic opportunities and challenges.
• Exchange rate, trade activities and investment trends.
• Collaborative or competitive nature with the U.S., regional and international political affiliations and trade associations.
In the U.S., I read every issue of The Economist and Foreign Affairs. When traveling to Asia Pacific, I read Asia Times and Asia Today. In the Middle East, I read the newspapers Al Arabiya and Great Middle East.
Manage International Travel
To build relationships with your teams and customers, you must spend time with them. Becoming a seasoned international traveler is no small feat. It takes mental determination, self-discipline and a resilient body. Long travel hours, time adjustments, dealing with connecting flights and unexpected travel situations, getting stuck because of weather or airport strikes, are just a few obstacles.
In 2018, I was in Japan doing business. On my first day, there was an earthquake in Tokyo with a tsunami warning. On my second day, North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan. On my third day, Al-Qaeda issued a threat to the Republic of Myanmar, the country I was headed to immediately after Japan. Unfortunately, you cannot learn from experience without living through it. But you can learn from others by talking to more experienced international travelers.
Be Digitally Savvy
It is inconceivable to lead international teams and travel internationally without being a savvy digital user. To connect with my regional teams, I use the communication apps they prefer, whether What’s App or WeChat. I have a cellular plan with unlimited data and internet. I know how to set up a hotspot with my phone when there is no Wi-Fi. I am a savvy user of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, WebEx, Adobe Connect and many other tools that can aid my virtual work while I am out of the country. Although I speak multiple languages, I keep translation tools at my fingertips. For just about everything I need, from currency exchange to local train schedules, I have digital tools that give me real-time help.
Leading global teams presents its own challenges. The leadership and communication methods we use in domestic settings may not work well internationally. Managing your mind and body is also critical when you travel internationally to meet with your teams and customers.
As a global leader, you must have excellent leadership first. There are principles common to all businesses. But awareness of international geopolitics, foreign policies, culture and customs are unique requirements for international business.